One of my favorite parts of my job is speaking to parents before their student starts test prep—especially when it’s their oldest student. The vast majority of these parents are already stressed out about what lies ahead, and for good reason. Test prep is the moment where the college process begins to feel really real for parents and students: it is usually the first additional responsibility levied on top of the “normal” workload of school and extracurriculars.
I’ve probably had a thousand of these conversations, and ninety percent of them are centered around the same basic questions:
“What test should my student take and when?”
“How much do you think my student’s score can improve?”
“What score do they need to get to get into [insert reach school here]?”
And, my new favorite:
“Does my student even need to take these tests now that schools are going test-optional?”
Spoiler alert: The answer is yes.
While these questions are certainly necessary to set up a timeline for the student and to set expectations for each family and test prep mentor, there is one question I’ve only been asked a handful of times that ultimately matters most to a student’s overall success on the SAT or ACT:
“What can I/we do to help?”
Of course, hiring a test prep mentor to help coach your student through the process is a great place to start, but it takes a real team effort to navigate this process in a productive way.
The unfortunate reality is that these tests are insanely stressful for even the most confident students—insecurities and anxieties always come out at some point; it is just a matter of when. I tell all of my students that knowing the strategies and techniques to use at every turn is only half of the battle: the other half is being able to successfully manage your nerves and stress in order to achieve the calm confidence necessary to test at your best when it matters most.
Thankfully, there are a few small, easy things that every parent can do to help make sure that their students are having the best test prep experience possible.
Create the Ideal Homework Environment
Reaching the perfect “test mindset”—where students can block out all of the noise and stress to focus solely on executing at a high level—takes a lot of practice, and parents can have a huge impact, both positively and negatively, on a student’s chances of doing so.
When completing timed sections and tests for homework, students should find a time of the week (I recommend weekend mornings) when they are consistently rested and focused so that they can give their best effort and achieve their best. In my experience, students that fit their homework in between classes or complete it very late at night just to “get it done” tend to make unnecessary mistakes and have worse pacing, and their scores unnecessarily suffer as a result. These lower results are not only a blow to students’ spirits, but they also make it harder for us mentors to isolate areas for improvement.
Parents can contribute in a big way here! Try to protect a 1-3 hour block in your student’s schedule for SAT/ACT homework. If possible (and I know it may not be these days), create a quiet area of the house where the student will not be interrupted, and remove distractions such as cell phones. When they rebut that they need their phone for the section timing, remind them that there are other ways to keep time, such as using our test proctoring videos or having you do it for them. Proctoring the tests yourself (or controlling the proctoring video out of reach of the student) can be especially valuable for students that might want to pause and take breaks that are not given on the actual test.
Rely on Mentors for Updates, Not Your Students!
We all know the conversation. Just like when you ask about school, you are going to ask how test prep is going, and you will be lucky to get a “good” instead of the usual “fine”. Prying further can increase tension and add undue stress to the process.
Instead of asking them, ask us! We regularly send detailed updates on student performance and effort, and we are more than happy to answer any questions you might have at any point.
Stay Calm and Positive
The college process is equally (if not more) stressful for parents as it is for students. As long as your student is doing what is asked of them and giving maximum effort, they are on the right track!
Crucially, not letting your student feel your stress about the process can go a long way towards allowing them to stay focused and calm through their prep. The added pressure of trying to do well to relieve your stress will likely only make their task more difficult. Try to trust the process and remain encouraging throughout the entire test prep journey.